H. BRUCE RINKER: Pollution Has A Brand!

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H. Bruce Rinker
H. Bruce Rinker

When Mexican businessman Alfredo Gandur inspected my photographs of marine plastics pollution along the coastline of the Yucatán Peninsula, including close-ups of manufacturer labels, he exclaimed, “Pollution has a brand!”

An affable and astute corporate executive, Alfredo is the director general of Pauta Creativa (pautacreativa.com.mx), a prestigious marketing company in México City that lists Adobe, Bayer, BOSE, Clorox, Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Microsoft, Starbucks, and UNICEF among its customers.

As he examined the photographic documentation of a clean-up campaign called Limpia Mahahual 2016, Alfredo quickly ascertained part of the global problem: manufacturers rarely internalize the long-term costs of environmental impact of their products. During the early June campaign, we discovered mountains of plastics debris from all over the world that included plastic water bottles, plastic cutlery and straws, plastic toothbrushes and shoes, plastic syringes (some still with needles attached), plastic containers of herbicides, plastic toys – plastic, plastic, and more plastic.

An unfortunately typical scene along the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Some of the not so scenic coastline along the Yucatan Peninsula.

This was my third international clean-up campaign as a volunteer in the region, the most recent of which was back in February 2013, but this campaign was the worst of them all.

Our small team of organizers and volunteers flew from México City to Chetumal where we traveled by van to two locations just north of the Mexican border with Belize: a small fishing village called Mahahual and a remote protected area called the Xcalak (pronounced “ESH-Kah-lack”) National Reef Park.

If you look up “Xcalak” on Wikipedia, you’ll find a strikingly bogus description: “Xcalak is one of the last ‘unspoiled’ stretches of the Mexican Caribbean located on the southern end of the Costa Maya.”

To be sure, Xcalak is remote, but it is far from “unspoiled.” In fact, it is decimated by a nonstop barrage of plastics pollution from offshore currents that capture discarded debris initially from Guatemala, Honduras, the United States, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and elsewhere, pounding the Mexican coastline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. Mountains of the stuff. Ironically, during my three-day documentation, I found one – ONE! – piece of plastics trash labeled, “Made in México.” All the rest originated somewhere else on the planet. The farthest away was Hong Kong.

The United Nations Environment Programme calls marine plastics pollution “a toxic time bomb.” Why? Simply put, plastics pollution kills marine life through ingestion, entanglement, and ecosystem damage. Fish, birds, sea turtles, and whales eat the stuff. I’ve seen degrading plastic bags enshroud coral stems, suffocating the colonies and abrading their sensitive tissues.

Further, as plastics breakdown into smaller and smaller fragments, this floating soup attracts pesticides and mercury from the environment that then travel up the food chain to market species such as tuna and swordfish. Like diamonds, plastics last forever – but become ever more deadly to the world around us. That’s why we view this kind of pollution as a toxic time bomb.

There are millions of tons of debris floating in our oceans, and most of it is plastic. We estimate that 80% of marine litter originates on land – carried to rivers from streets during heavy rain via storm drains, sewer overflows, and trashcans brimful with our discards.

What can we do as individuals and communities? Lots! First, let’s wean ourselves off disposable plastics such as grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable cutlery, straws, and coffee-lid cups. Stop buying water in disposable water bottles. Boycott plastic micro-beads in facial scrubs, toothpastes, and body washes. Cook more at home, thereby shunning all those plastic food containers. Avoid purchases of new toys and electronic gadgets, mostly loaded with plastics. Recycle. Support a plastic bag tax or ban. Nationwide, more than 150 cities and counties have implemented or will implement bans or fees in an attempt to reduce the estimated 100 million plastic bags used in the United States each year!

And let’s put pressure on manufacturers to be smarter and more sustainable about their packaging. Alfredo Gandur sensed this when he studied the plastics pollution afflicting Mahahual and Xcalak and asserted, “Pollution has a brand!”

Limpia Mahahual 2016 was an international campaign organized through the efforts of three savvy and inspiring businessmen – Santiago Lobeira, Manolo Ruiz, and Alfredo Blasquez – who live in México City and are tirelessly devoted to their country’s exceptional natural resources, including faraway places like Mahahual and Xcalak. They are founders of a nonprofit called Heel Habilidades S.C. (heel.org.mx), a small company that strives to protect the rich biodiversity and ecosystems of México. Limpia Mahahual 2016 was accomplished under the auspices of Heel.

Further, a quick glance at the affiliations of the other participants in the Limpia Mahahual 2016 campaign speaks volumes about the high level of concern among Mexican businesses for this pernicious global issue. They include América Móvil, Estée Lauder/La Mer, Hard Rock Hotels, Mayan Beach Garden Hotel, México Azul, México Business Publishing, National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, Republic of Everyone México, Sustenta Soluciones S.A. de C.V., and Warner Pictures. As a volunteer, I represented Bioquest Solutions (bioquestsolutions.com) and acted as science advisor for the campaign. To help solve the global problem of marine plastics pollution, we need all major stakeholders at the table to formulate a long-term plan.

So here’s another idea: participate in or even sponsor a beach, river, or roadside clean-up!

This “toxic time bomb” has two key components: the manufacture and consumption of plastics. Heretofore, we’ve emphasized the responsibility of the consumer, but it’s clear that manufacturers also bear some responsibility for the creation of a product that may persist in the environment for 500 to 1,000 years.

“Pollution has a brand.” Its adverse causes and effects in the natural world are entirely our own making as producers and consumers. Plastics pollution is yet another example of our myopic modern-day lifestyles that exact expediency without stewardship.

Please. No more excuses for such irresponsibility.

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D., is a forest ecologist, science educator, and conservationist living in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He is also the founder of Bioquest Solutions LLC, a multi-service environmental consultancy at home and abroad. Bruce may be reached at [email protected]